Stanford News on Egan’s Li Qingzhao

Poet Li QingzhaoStanford News has a brief feature on Ronald Egan’s new book on Li Qingzhao 李清照 (1084-1150s): The Burden of Female Talent: The Poet Li Qingzhao  and Her History in China, they say, “is the first critical treatment of Qingzhao’s writing in English to appear in 50 years.” They don’t know that Chinese surnames come before given names, but the feature is still worth reading. Here’s an excerpt focusing on what makes Egan’s approach important:

Unlike traditional Chinese scholarship, Egan’s groundbreaking approach to investigating Li Qingzhao’s life and writings examines her place in history before analyzing her literary work. Reconstructing the social and literary world in which Qingzhao wrote has to come first, Egan explained, because it enables him to address the gender biases she has faced throughout the past 800 years of Chinese scholarship and criticism.

“I can’t start talking about my understanding of her literary works,” Egan said, “until the reader sees the whole story unpacked and deconstructed. And then we can go back with all that in mind and have a fresh look at her literary works. Only by doing that can we accurately gauge her achievement as a poet.”

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Ron Egan on The Burden of Female Talent

Cover: The Burden of Female Talent in HARDCOVERThe Burden of Female Talent: The Poet Li Qingzhao and Her History in China
by Ronald Egan

Widely considered the preeminent Chinese woman poet, Li Qingzhao 李清照 (1084-1150s) occupies a crucial place in China’s literary and cultural history. She stands out as the great exception to the rule that the first-rank poets in premodern China were male. But at what price to our understanding of her as a writer does this distinction come? The Burden of Female Talent challenges conventional modes of thinking about Li Qingzhao as a devoted but often lonely wife and, later, a forlorn widow. By examining manipulations of her image by the critical tradition in later imperial times and into the twentieth century, Ronald C. Egan brings to light the ways in which critics sought to accommodate her to cultural norms, molding her “talent” to make it compatible with ideals of womanly conduct and identity. Contested images of Li, including a heated controversy concerning her remarriage and its implications for her “devotion” to her first husband, reveal the difficulty literary culture has had in coping with this woman of extraordinary conduct and ability. The study ends with a reappraisal of Li’s poetry, freed from the autobiographical and reductive readings that were traditionally imposed on it and which remain standard even today.

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